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Pilot details hijack nightmare

JERUSALEM, Nov. 24 -- The pilot of a hijacked Ethiopian Airways jetliner that crashed into the Indian Ocean with 175 people aboard said Sunday three men seized the plane -- one armed with an ax, one with a fire extinguisher and one with a bottle of whiskey. Ethiopian Airlines issued a statement Sunday saying at least 58 people were killed when the Nairobi-bound Boeing 767 plunged into the Indian Ocean Saturday. There were 52 survivors and 65 people were still missing and feared dead. Radio reports said the passengers included diplomats from the United States, Italy, Hungary and South Korea. Flight 961 had originated in Bombay with a stop in Addis Ababa. The pilot, Leul Abate, 42, told authorities the hijackers were of African origin and spoke French. He said one had a small ax apparently taken from the airplane's safety gear and one was armed with a fire extinguisher. The third man had a bottle of whiskey in one hand and claimed he had a bomb in the other, but the pilot said he never saw a bomb. Shortly after takeoff the trio made their way to the cockpit where they forcibly removed copilot Yonas Mekuria, 35, tossing him into the passenger cabin. The plane was carrying only enough fuel for the less than two-hour flight between Addis Ababa and Nairobi, but the hijackers refused to believe the pilot when he told them there wasn't enough fuel to make it to Australia. As the hijacking unfolded, the plane circled over East Africa.

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One of the hijackers became agitated and told the pilot he would fly the plane himself, taking away the pilot's headphones to prevent him from talking to the Comoros Islands control tower. The plane finally ran out of fuel and plunged into the Indian Ocean off the Comoros Islands, between the northeast coast of Mozambique and the northern tip of Madagascar, some 200 miles (322 km) off the east coast of Africa. Many of the survivors were critically injured. At least four of the survivors were Americans, including U.S. consul general to Bombay Frank Huddle and his wife, who were hospitalized with minor injuries. The British Broadcasting Corporation reported the Italian ambassador was also among the survivors. The motive for the hijacking was not immediately known. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said it would send agents to the Comoros Islands to investigate the crash.

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